Friday, March 30, 2012

Film Pairing — The Birth Of Two Villains, Lee Marvin And Richard Widmark

A number of crime writers my age have extensive backgrounds not only writing pulp novels, but also reading them. And many have an encyclopedic knowledge of the great black and crime films of the 1940s and 50s. I no doubt saw a whole bunch of them when I was a kid taking in double features at the big downtown movie houses in Indianapolis or later on the late night movies on TV. But many of these films, as I open the little red envelopes from Netflix, are fairly new to me. And while I claim no historical expertise I’m enjoying them immensely.

Among the most pleasant of surprises are the number of supporting actors and actresses who make the movies so exciting. I saw Broderick Crawford in Human Desire the other evening and found him more interesting to watch than Glenn Ford. In Laura, Clifton Web was fascinating in a way that Dana Andrews could never be. Sure I enjoy some of the big, more glamorous stars of the times, but supporting actress Ann Sothern was more fun to watch than the more adored, romantic lead co-star of the time, Anne Baxter, in the Blue Gardenia.

In The Big Heat and Kiss of Death, two supporting players — two stellar actors as really nasty characters — stand out.

Fritz Lang directed some of the finest ‘50s black and white films, characterized by striking cinematography and perhaps a little more violence than audiences were used to at the time. Glenn Ford (The Big Heat,1953), is a homicide detective, husband and father who lives in a nice, little frame home and looks forward to dinner at home. His wholesome life is put on edge by an attempted cover-up of a corrupt cop’s activities and subsequent death. Ford’s character is completely upended when his wife is killed and his daughter is threatened. Enter Lee Marvin, who likes hurting women, including his own girlfriend. Gloria Grahame plays a “loose” woman who doesn’t take an especially brutal victimization lightly. Supporting players Marvin, particularly good as the slimy bad guy, and Grahame, who gives considerable depth to the standard bimbo role, steal the show.

I’ve seen Kiss of Death (1947) a few times. One of the reasons is that I’ve always liked Brian Donlevy. All he has to do is be in the frame to dominate the scene. The second is Victor Mature. I’ve never been a fan. He seemed to get the pretty boy roles without being all that pretty. To me, he seemed to be a parody of himself. Here he plays a criminal that, if the story is to work, has to be both believable and likable. It is important we root for him. And we do. He is entirely believable as a decent guy who, in the past, made some seriously wrong decisions. However the movie, directed by the talented Henry Hathaway, might not be all that special if it weren’t for the bigger-than-life performance of Richard Widmark as the rabid Tommy Udo. No one word can describe the kind of madness that Widmark embodies in the character, though one critic came close with just a couple of words. He suggested Udo must have been inspired by the “Joker,” from the Batman series. I can see it. It is said that the Udo role launched Widmark’s career. It is also the role that won him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

These are beer-drinking movies. In The Big Heat, both the homicide detective and his wife have beer with dinner. So does the reformed ex-con in Kiss of Death. Striving to be the average blue-collar Joe, he enjoys a bottle of brew when he returns home from work. Because both films are set in New York in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, try to track down a bottle of Rheingold. If you live west of Cincinnati, though, you’ll just have to make do with some other American brew.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Book Notes — Finding That San Francisco Bay Area Crime Novel

I often write about resources for mystery readers. Click on mystery book stores on the right side of this page and you’ll have a current list of shops around the country that specialize in mysteries. On the left are The Thrilling Detective and The Rap Sheet icons. Both are comprehensive resources for those interested in the genre. I also write about San Francisco, especially its bookstores and neighborhoods. However, as the first full year of this blog comes to a close, I have yet to mention one of the most significant resources for mystery lovers, especially those who want the setting for their murders to be San Francisco and its environs. “Golden Gate Mysteries,” is a website that hosts a list of nearly 2,000 mysteries set, at least in part, here in the Bay Area. Randal Brandt manages the resource at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. And he keeps these extensive files current.

Please explore the site your own. There is no way I can do it justice here. But as a tease, let me relate my most recent trip through the electronic archives, a trip that surprised me in two ways. One was seeing the number of well-known authors who have no special connection to the Bay Area, but who have set at least one crime novel here. I found two famous authors I didn’t know wrote mysteries at all. Award-winning novelist and North Beach resident Herbert Gold wrote a mystery set here as did uber-best selling (I’ve never had the chance to use the word “uber.” I’m done with it now) author Danielle Steele, who just recently fled her mansion across the street from Lafayette Park for the apparently cleaner streets of Paris. However, you might be surprised to learn that Walter Mosley, James Ellroy, Erle Stanley Gardner, Sue Grafton, William T. Vollman, Charles Willeford, James Crumley, Richard Helms and Jeffrey Deaver have all set mystery or crime novels in the Bay Area. So have the MacDonalds, John D. and Ross. Gregory McDonald also.

The second surprise was the number of published home-grown or long-time area mystery writers who take advantage of the diversity of geography and people the area offers to plan a murder or two. The most famous, and probably the city’s crime fiction laureate is Dashiell Hammett. However there are others taking the world by storm — The Patterson boys (not related) James and Richard North keep the confusion going by both writing about the area. Local author

John T. Lescroart regularly finds his books on The New York Times Best Sellers List. We have others with national and international recognition — Bill Pronzini (who has written more than 40 books set here) and his wife Marcia Muller, who has written more than 30. And these don’t count the books they have written together.

Other local names of note: Domenic Stansberry, Jerry Kennealy, Lee Goldberg, Mark Coggins, Janet Dawson, Laurie King, Simon Wood, Lisa Lutz. One of my favorites, who has stopped writing mysteries, it seems, is Stephen Greenleaf. He wrote more than a dozen books set in San Francisco. The late Joe Gores wrote 16. Other writers no longer with us, but who added to the richness of Bay Area mystery scene, are Jack Lynch and Oakley Hall. There are many others of genuine talent — hundreds of them, perhaps some of your favorites — but too many to mention here. I’m sure I’ve missed some important writers. I encourage readers and writers to add their favorites in the comments section. All comments, including corrections, are welcome.

The San Francisco Bay Area may be the richest setting in the U.S. We have the rolling countryside of wine country, gritty urban neighborhoods, a broad diversity of population and cultural inclusion, top high tech industries, powerful corporations, a vast number of universities, marinas, breathtaking hills and an area with an immense international draw.There are hidden stairways, grand old homes and various forms of transportation — subways, trains and cable cars among them. From Chinatown to the Mission, from the financial district to Golden Gate Park and from the tough, down and out Tenderloin to the understated elegance and richness of Pacific Heights, there are settings to sustain any drama. Come to think of it, two of the city’s best known socialites — Merla Zellerbach and Pat Montandon have made contributions to the growing list of Bay Area mystery writers. And we can thank the Bancroft Library and Golden Gate Mysteries for keeping track of all of us.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Film Pairing — Atmospheric Winter Tales Of Terror

I’ll admit to being more interested films set in tropical climates or seriously urban settings. With Concrete Pillow as an exception, the Indianapolis mysteries I write are set in the three non-Winter seasons. That’s the usual way I approach novels and movies. With Smilla’s Sense of Snow and Winter’s Bone I’ve given in not just to cold but also to four hours of sadness and desolation. This isn’t a night of Rodgers and Hammerstein. What makes them worthwhile is unusual: strong, female characters who are not nearly as plentiful as they ought to be in the crime film genre. On the other hand, the two main characters are not bigger-than-life heroic or anti-heroic characters. They are not talented combatants. We’re not talking angry, someone with a personal vendetta like Lisbeth Salander or psychotic in the way the sexy, robotic killer Nikita is psychotic. These are characters whose personal sense of right and wrong drives the plots. They may be vulnerable, but they have spines of steel.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997) has its detractors, and with good reason. The very last few minutes seem Bondian —just fine for Bond films — but a glaring, last minute change in style considering the rich, literary texture the film offers until then. Disappointing as those moments are, this is a fine film and an interesting match to Winter’s Bone. The cinematography, especially of the vast snow and ice-covered expanse of Greenland, is magnificent. Further, the cast is superb. In addition to a fine performance by Julia Ormond as Smilla, there are the expected high-level performances by all of the members of this mostly British cast, including Gabriel Byrne, Tom Wilkinson, Jim Broadbent and Robert Loggia. Vanessa Redgrave and Richard Harris are both able to add heft to the small, but vital roles they inhabit. Harris doesn’t have to say a word to intimidate everyone and everything around him. The problem for the bad guys is that Smilla won’t stop investigating the death of a young Inuit boy, a death that authorities have determined to be accidental. The investigation leads her not just to the facts surrounding the death, but a self-discovery that takes her life beyond her initial personal philosophy: “The only thing that makes me happy is mathematics.”

The film, based on the Danish book by Peter Hoeg called Smilla’s Feeling For Snow, is moving, thought provoking and suspenseful.There are times in Smilla’s Sense of Snow that will make your heart bleed. In Winter’s Bone, your heart will take a sustained beating. This is rural Missouri. It could have been southern Indiana or parts of Tennessee or many other impoverished areas of the South and Midwest. We see skinny dogs on chains tied to a post on grassless lawns, rusted barbecue grills and bent up house trailers. It’s a land of meth labs and angry, gun-toting men with repressed tongue-biting wives.

Ree, played by Jennifer Lawrence, is the daughter of a meth cook who has either died or is fleeing from the law. The daughter is left to care for her much younger siblings as well as her mother who cannot even care for herself. Their home, not much but all they have, had been used as the father’s bail. And it is about to be taken from them. No money. No place to go. The assorted redneck blood kin won’t help. One of the most telling lines is a woman asking Ree why she is stirring up trouble: “Don’t you have a man to handle this?” Even if it would be easier to play the helpless female in a man’s world, Ree can’t do it. She has to do it because no one else will. She has to hope, because there is no alternative.

Winter’s Bone, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell and directed by Debra Granik, won a slew of awards including a Grand Jury Prize from the Sundance Film Festival. It was also nominated for four Academy Awards last year. I am unfamiliar with the actors cast in the supporting roles; but the compelling reality they created on screen is a testament to their considerable talent. They conveyed a world that I know exists, but one I want no part of.

For the first film, how about going with the ice flow. Pour some vodka over the rocks. I’d continue that with the second film as well, but if the atmosphere gets to you, consider adding some Mountain Dew to the vodka. No, don’t.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Observations — Three By Night, Moon Over North Beach

If I hadn’t become a writer, I might have become a photographer. I love looking at photographs and miss the wonderful galleries that used to exist in the city. Fortunately, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has chosen the art form as a specialty.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I spend a good deal of time wandering around San Francisco. I take a camera with me most of the time. These photographs were taken on the same evening in North Beach. I can’t claim that as I caused the shutter to open and shut I knew exactly what I was going to get. But a few turned out to have captured what I feel about this legendary part of the city — particularly Washington Park and St. Peter and Paul Church. Incidentally, Severn House used the photograph of the smaller, church, Saint Francis of Assisi for the cover when they published my mystery, Death in North Beach. Samples of my other San Francisco neighborhood photographs are available here.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Opinion — Free Books Will Rule: If That Is True, The Truth Hurts

Another title to this post could be “change or die.” Many of us, particularly those of us who grew up when the book — the object itself —was sacred, are being buffeted about by stormy changes in the business. These changes are caused, in large part, by the invention of the e-book and certainly by the ease with which we writers can publish (though not necessarily market) our own work.

In what might now be called the “olden days,” we might have found a “pre-read” book in a dusty used bookstore for a dollar. We might even find a stack of beat-up, old books on the curb along with a stack of dented kitchen pans and a bureau with missing drawers awaiting the rounds of a man with a grocery cart. But new books for free? No, not unless it was political or religious propaganda. And in that case, you knew what you were getting. Most likely you got exactly what you paid for. In those days, I say from my creaking rocking chair, even Readers Digest was treated with some level of respect.

Yet, increasingly on crime-fiction related websites, blogs and Facebook pages, I’m seeing, “Get this book ‘free.’” This usually refers to a download of an e-book. Some of the free offerings seem promising, written by professional writers. The books have catchy names and enticing covers and blurbs from generally reliable sources. Sometimes the offer is only available for a few days. But sometimes, it’s just a free book. And for big spenders with a high level of discretionary income, there are any number of books available for a whopping 99 cents.

Last week I read an interesting post on the blog, Murderati, which nearly always has something thought provoking. This one was by guest columnist Scott Nicholson who has been on the cutting edge of ebook and self-publishing. Many of us guessed correctly that ebooks were the wave of the future, and that this format, in particular, would encourage the proliferation of e-books. Most of us, on the other hand, had no idea how quickly the tsunami would arrive and how forceful it would be. He and a few others saw it coming. And now he is suggesting that another big wave is arriving and it is the “free book.” Now that he’s said it and I’ve thought about it, the notion makes sense. Sadly, it makes sense.

I’m as guilty as anyone when I expect stuff on the Internet to be free. I stopped reading The New York Times editorial pages when they partitioned the site and allowed me access to Maureen Dowd only if I paid a fee. I don’t go to sites I have to pay for. I can’t justify my feelings that you pay for books, but you get the Huffington Post for free, a site that gets most of its stuff for free as well. I understand that writers write for web sites, that they do research, that there is some overhead and that no one will do these things for free, at least for very long. So I may be part of the problem. But I see how my actions or lack of them help shape the future that I really don’t want. The thing is, it doesn’t make any difference. The wave is coming.

What Nicholson is saying is just an extension of that nonpaying mindset. He is merely applying it to another kind of product one gets from the Internet — the book. I truly want to say he’s wrong. But I strongly suspect he isn’t. So how will writers be paid for their professional services? Sponsorship. Advertising. How will that work? Probably in a variety of ways. A company or organization wanting to be viewed as philanthropic and supportive of arts and literature might choose some writers to endow with minimal exposure. Perhaps a little sentence acknowledging the support of the such and such foundation, kind of like they do on PBS. Another way is branding. A company may have a logo placed, subtly or not so subtly, on various places in the book so the reader will keep the word Mountain Dew top of mind. Matching products to individual books or writers might be a fun game. Crime fiction may be a great way to sell the new Glock 21. Then, of course, there is the more subtle approach — product placement. A book may contain advertising from more than one advertiser. Likely this will develop in significantly strategies on many levels.

As Nicholson also suggests, the whole notion of “flat text” on the screen is a temporary notion anyway. The possibilities of enriching text with graphics, static and non-static, are endless and fascinating. Using this technology to make incredible, as yet unseen thrillers, for example, is exciting. Using this technology to promote Coca Cola is inevitable. As you read about the victim being tied up in a third world jungle waiting for armies of hungry ants, an image of an ice cold Coke bubbles away in the margin.

Rail against it all you want. Some writers refused to use word processors, forgetting of course, that the earlier writers used quills and before that a chisel. What’s coming is what’s coming. And what’s coming is product placement. The truth is that I have always placed products in my books. Many writers do. We don’t get paid for it. Speaking for myself, I did it to help define character and make clearer what the reader envisions when he or she reads a scene. For example, if someone in the story wears a Burberry scarf, my purpose was not to sell Burberry, but to make the picture of that scene come through quickly and specifically. The use of the high-end, fashion-conscious Burberry also gives clues to the personality or nature of the character.

But, if a writer has a set of guidelines for product use in order to meet the contract that provides conditions of payment, in what way does that influence the writer, the plot, the characters? Unless your characters drive some model of Toyota, you’re out there on your own, writer. No marketing. No income. Just remember for every click on Prius, you get 30 cents. Does that matter if your only purpose is to entertain? This isn’t a new question. It’s been done for years in film and TV. How much did BMW have to pay the producers to replace James Bond’s Aston Martin in one of the Bond films? But books?

How much more material can our world be? Will each tree in the park have a plaque that says brought to you by Sherwin Williams? A friend of mine often ends one of our discussions with: “I’m going back to my apartment and lock the door.” He says it in a way that implies he will never come out again. There is that temptation. Of course, the world will go on. And most of the readers of the future won’t notice how the game has changed. For me the only upside is that those pirating, or appropriating if you wish, our books off the Internet will have been pirated themselves. You can’t steal a free book.

CAPTIONS: (TOP) A new patriotic crime novel could attract some interesting advertising. (BOTTOM) James Bond, starring BMW and Pierce Brosnan.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Film Pairing — Famous, Contemporary Fictional Lawyers, From Books To Screen

I never saw what the deal was with Matthew McConaughey. Perhaps it was because he played unintentionally unsympathetic characters in the kind of movies I wasn’t inclined to see anyway. However, twice that I know of, McConaughey gave performances so clearly on the mark, I can’t imagine another actor pulling them off as well. Both times — in roles years apart — he played an attorney. Both films were based on characters and stories created by deservedly best-selling novelists, who — surprise — liked the movies made from their books. And both times the actor, most famous for taking his shirt off in films, didn’t need to carry the films on his bare shoulders, but could rely on a highly talented supporting cast.

The first is A Time to Kill, based on John Grisham’s novel by the same name. We go back to 1996. A black man kills the two white men who raped and killed his daughter. The movie controversially sets up the conflict of letter of the law against righteous revenge. Are we a nation of laws? We’d like to think so. But what if the law won’t exact justice? Is vigilantism ever justified? The film was panned by some critics because the film appeared to take a side in the argument.

On the other hand there is no argument about the cast. It is stellar. Samuel L. Jackson played the pivotal role of father. He was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for “Best Supporting Actor.” One could make a case that it should have been for “Best Actor.” Among the others who contributed to this solid drama were: Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland, Kiefer Sutherland, Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd and Chris Cooper. The background, as you might have guessed, is the Deep South. The KKK is featured. The problem is that while the white sheets rarely make appearance these days, the attitudes haven’t disappeared. The film remains timely.

The second feature is The Lincoln Lawyer (2011). An older, somewhat weathered as well as appropriately wizened McConaughey plays Mickey Haller who plays all sides to get what he needs. One has the sense that the only people he won’t game are his daughter and his private investigator, played by William Macy. On the other hand, Haller lives and works in a world where trust is dangerous and playing it straight is unprofitable. Again McConaughey is backed up with a talented cast. In addition to the always incredible Macey, we see Marisa Tomei, John Leguizamo. Bryan Cranston does a great job of playing a tough, veteran, cynical cop. And Ryan Phillippe creates perfect pretty boy sociopath.

Haller is the lawyer whose office is in the back of Lincoln Town Car. He is the creation of best-selling crime writer Michael Connelly (see last week’s post) and this is the first of what promises to be a major series of books and if the news last updated in August holds true, will follow Grisham’s The Firm onto the small screen in a series proposed for ABC-TV.

Finding an appropriate drink to accompany the movies is made difficult by the small-town Mississippi setting for A Time To Kill and the L.A. fast lane for The Lincoln Lawyer. I’m thinking that we look at something good in hot weather. Never mind that many are still enduring March, that cruel month. How about a gin and tonic? If you’re feeling particularly Southern, put in a mint leaf.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Blatant Promotion — The Last Self Promo (For Now)

Excerpt: San Francisco’s North Beach isn’t a beach. It once was. But a portion of the Bay was filled in to make room for more buildings. Now it is a low-rise village tucked in between Chinatown, the Financial District, Jackson Square, and the lofty neighborhoods of Russian Hill and Telegraph Hill.

North Beach is half-tourist and half authentic San Francisco. The neighborhood wasn’t made to look like an old Italian neighborhood. It is an old Italian neighborhood. True, modernity crept in as families died off. A hardware is gone. So are a few family-style restaurants. But the chain stores were kept at bay. There are no Olive Gardens or Starbucks. No Borders. No Banana Republics. No skyscraping office buildings or condominiums.

The Beat Generation was born here and so, perhaps, was the idea of Americans hanging around in coffee houses. It was and still is, in a sadly decreasing way, the neighborhood of poets, artists, writers, philosophers and strippers. Most of the Beats are very old or very dead now.

One of them, old and very recently dead, floats in a shallow pond on a small triangular island at the intersection of three streets. A few feet away from the pond, across one of those streets, was the victim’s favorite watering hole, the Washington Square Bar and Grill. Lovingly called the ‘Washbag’ by its colorful and often celebrity clientele, the landmark has died and been reborn a few times. The cosmic jury is still out on Whitney Warfield.

Synopsis: Sweet William, a handsome, charming and discreet professional companion to the wealthy, needs help. A famous, but not beloved, novelist is found dead. William is the prime suspect. His only salvation is to uncover the real murderer. He can’t do it himself and he can’t go to the police. But, he can provide a list of suspects — prominent figures connected to San Francisco's legendary North Beach — whose secrets may be revealed in the victim's soon-to-be published tell-all.

Private investigator Carly Paladino agrees to take him on as a client. But the question remains: Was the devilish gigolo telling the truth or did she fall under his spell?

Whatever the case, Carly and her streetwise and skeptical partner, Noah Lang, stir up serious trouble when they try to find the manuscript — and the murderer. Much like North Beach itself, the suspects are trying to preserve the image they want the world to see. And it seems one death is not enough to conceal some very inconvenient truths.

Not quite a cozy, but this second in the San Francisco mystery series is a light-hearted tale. Death in North Beach is a “round up all the suspects at the end” kind of mystery and an exciting tour of the City by the Bay.

What The Critics Said:

This is a witty, very engaging entry in what promises to be a thoroughly entertaining new series. — Booklist

The interplay between Carly and Noah is delightful – talk about opposites! — George Easter, Deadly Pleasures

This is a perfect rainy day book! — Ruta Arellano, Sacramento Book Review

Good, dirty fun – with a delightful icing of San Francisco details. — Rap Sheet

The Carly Paladino and Noah Lang Mysteries have “the makings of a superior series. Tierney, author of the Deets Shanahan series, has a winner here.” — Library Journal

Death in North Beach is available in hardback, paperback and e-book at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.